Reel lawn mowers can be a wise choice for yard maintenance because they are relatively inexpensive, quiet, and easy to maintain. Plus, they only take up only a fraction of the space required by a typical mower.
But that’s not all, they are also better for the overall health of your lawn since they cut grass blades the way scissors would. This is unlike a traditional rotary mower that tends to rip and tear grass, leaving brown tips and exposing it to diseases.
If you’re wondering why else you should consider a reel mower and which ones are the best reel mowers in 2023, then this article was specifically written for a lawn owner like you!
We go over not only what the best reel mowers are, but also what exactly you should look for, and how they work to help you make the best decision for your lawn.
What is a Reel Mower?
A reel mower has vertically spinning blades. This differs from the majority of lawnmowers, known as rotary mowers, in which the blade spins horizontally.
Historically, reel mowers are mechanically powered, necessitating the use of muscle to cut grass. However, today you can also find reel mowers powered by gas, which are particularly useful for cutting larger turf areas.
How Does a Reel Mower Work?
Most motorized push mowers use rotary blades. The cutting edge is parallel to the ground and goes around and around in a clockwise motion (or maybe it’s counter-clockwise, but you get the point).
By contrast, a reel mower’s five to eight spiral steel blades spin at an angle perpendicular to the ground. As you push the mower, the reel turns and snips the grass in a scissor-like motion. It provides a finer cut than a rotary mower — no ripping or tearing — and seals the grass blade, which keeps moisture in and lawn diseases out.
People purchase reel mowers primarily due to their clean, short cut. The truth is that only reel mowers can achieve a cutting height of half an inch or less. If you’ve ever wondered how golf courses maintain such short grass, the answer is a gas-powered reel mower.
Also, unlike power mowers, which create a vacuum that pulls up the blades of grass as it cuts, the snipping action of a reel mower causes minimal disturbance to the natural growth pattern of turf.
This interwoven network of leaves (blades of grass) just above the soil level is a key element of turf’s natural ability to retain moisture and crowd out weeds. Reel mowers cut the grass in place, reducing the vertical height but leaving the grass with blades of varying lengths.
Professional groundskeepers prefer the cutting action of a reel mower because it allows them to cut at the lowest recommended height and still maintain a beautiful healthy look.
It also produces a natural mulch by dispersing clippings in a fine spray (no clumping) that decompose quickly. Left on the lawn, these clippings release nutrients into the soil. Over the course of a growing season, that mulch is equivalent to a free application of organic fertilizer.
Why Consider Using a Reel Lawn Mower?
There are multiple reasons why you should consider using a reel lawn mower. Let’s look at some of our top reasons:
- First of all, they start every time.
- They’re much quieter than gas-powered mowers, so quiet that you can mow early Sunday morning without waking the neighbors.
- They’re fuel-free unless you count those bowls of cereal or peanut butter sandwiches that power your engine.
- They don’t degrade air quality (lawn mower engines are terribly inefficient and emit more than 10 times the hydrocarbons per amount of gas burned than auto engines).
- Not only are reel mowers great for the environment, but they also require little maintenance and are a great means of exercise.
- They’re cheaper than gas-powered mowers, both in initial outlay and operating costs.
Are Reel Lawn Mowers Better Than Gas Mowers?
Reel lawn mowers are definitely better than gas-powered, rotary mowers.
Rotary lawn mowers tend to tear off the tops of grass blades, leaving them exposed to disease. Ever notice how the tops of each grass blade turn brown after mowing with a gas machine?
A reel mower snips the grass, like scissors, leaving finer trimmings to mulch in your yard. This mulch not only nourishes your lawn but also prevents weed seeds from germinating.
Rotary mowers also create a vacuum as they pass (that’s why they’re great for cutting tall, droopy weeds). They literally vacuum the mulch layer off the ground, providing an opportunity for weeds to find space to take root.
On the other hand, reel mowers will cut shorter (approximately 1-3/4 to 2-1/2 inches depending on the model) without disturbing the soil surface.
What About the Disadvantages of Using a Reel Mower?
No doubt you’ve heard of the drawback associated with reel push mowers from some disgruntled neighbor or relative.
They’re just too much work.
They’re hard to keep sharp and don’t cut evenly.
They leave the dandelion crowns standing.
These concerns are mostly a thing of the past. New materials and technology have made reel mowers lighter and more efficient. And a few changes in your lawn care strategy will not only make life with a reel mower easier but will result in benefits to your yard — and your health — as well.
When was Reel Mowers Invented?
Push mowers, invented in 1830 by Edwin Budding near Stroud, England (you can see one of the originals in the London Science Museum), have improved since I discovered that old reel back in the woodshed.
Today, they’re lighter, smoother rolling, and made of stronger alloys. Blades stay sharper longer — about twice as long as a power mower’s spark plug lasts — and some machines are designed for specialized uses such as cutting thick, low-growing Bermuda and Zoysia grass.
With a little care and planning, a push reel mower will not only give you years of quiet, fuel and pollution-free service. It will help you keep a better lawn.
Things to Consider When Buying a Reel Mower
Size and Terrain
Reel lawn mowers are best used in smaller, level yards. The wider a mower is, the harder it will be to push.
Steep hills can make mowing difficult (as they do with power lawn mowers) but maneuverability with a reel mower, especially those with rear wheels, is better than with most power mowers.
Still, a reel mower may require pulling the mower back and pushing it in the new direction. This assures a clean cut as it trims any grass missed while rotating the reel.
Push reel mowers tend to run over tall weeds, like dandelion flowers, rather than cut them. But a reel lawn mower makes weed control easier. You’ll want to inspect your lawn for obstructions as you mow. A rock can chip mower blades. I always cleared twigs and fallen fruit from beneath my trees before making a pass with the mower.
Type of Grass
It’s best to consider the type of grass you’ll be mowing and the height you prefer as this will affect the cutting width and number of reel blades to look for in your reel mower.
Most mower reels contain five blades and are fine for cutting Kentucky bluegrass, perennial rye, fescue, and other common grasses. Thicker grasses found in the South and areas prone to droughts, like Zoysia, Bent, and Bermuda grasses, are best handled by seven-blade mowers.
Models with seven blades and an 18-inch cutting width are good for medium-sized lawns. If they are consistently maintained, most small to medium-sized lawns can be successfully cut by reel mowers with four or five blades and smaller cutting widths.
In warmer, wetter climates where grass grows quickly, an adjustable blade height feature found on some more expensive reel models can be a lifesaver. Most of the time, these settings range anywhere from 0.5 to 4 inches.
Consider the amount of moisture your lawn receives and the kinds of use it gets so that you’ll know just how short to cut.
To increase comfort when mowing medium-sized lawns, some reel lawn mower models feature ergonomic, cushioned handles, attached grass collection bins, and other features.
An InertiaDrive reel is another feature to look for in a reel mower; it provides a more precise cut and is especially helpful for cutting tall and thick grasses.
Planet Natural’s Picks for Best Reel Mowers in 2023
Here are our top picks for the best reel mowers you can buy in 2023:
Best Overall Reel Mower: Great States 18-Inch 5-Blade Push Reel Lawn Mower
The Great States 415-16 push reel lawn mower is the first on our list and is well-known for its cutting power. This mower does an excellent job of trimming and shaping your lawn thanks to its blade height adjustment range of 0.5 to 2.5 inches.
This reel mower is our top pick because of the high quality of its blades; they are made of heat-treated alloy steel and stay sharp for a very long time. The blades are sharp enough to use for trimming precise lawn borders. And the mower’s cushioned handle makes it simple to push through even the thickest grass with a solid grip.
It requires only one push to start, making it a hassle-free manual lawn mower. Plus, the lightweight design of the Great States reel lawn mower makes it easy to maneuver throughout the yard.
The reels cut the grass cleanly and efficiently, leaving behind a neat and even lawn without any ripping or tearing. In addition, the lawn mower is simple and easy to store. It can be hung on a wall or tucked away in a garage nook and so requires minimal storage space.
Best Wide Cutting Width Reel Mower: Scotts Outdoor Classic Push Reel Lawn Mower
The Scotts 2000-20 is our top pick for a reel mower with a wide cutting width for healthy, precise cutting.
The mower’s 20-inch cutting swath allows it to quickly and cleanly remove grass in a single motion, without tearing or ripping the blades. With the Scotts 2000-20 mower, you’ll never have to go over your lawn more than once.
The blades are made of heat-treated alloy steel, which maintains its edge for a longer period of time and allows for exceptionally precise grass cutting. The blade adjustment range is from 1 to 3 inches.
The enhanced maneuverability on the lawn is a result of the dual-tracking wheels, which allow for a more even cut when moving around your lawn.
Mowing is a breeze with the Scotts 2000-20 Outdoor Power Tools mower. Ergonomic padding on the mower’s handles promotes healthful posture as you cut the grass.
It can be quickly and easily assembled with no extra hardware and tools required. It’s one of the most user-friendly and space-efficient manual lawn mowers on the market, making this model a top pick at its price point.
Best Lightweight Reel Mower: American Lawn Mower Company 14-Inch 4-Blade Mower
With being the lightest reel mower on the list, the 14-inch American Lawn Mower weighs just 20 pounds overall. It has four cutting blades made of a steel alloy that has been heated to prevent them from becoming dull. It also has 8.5-inch polymer wheels and rear rollers to make it more stable.
This smaller American Lawn Mower is ideal for mowing a small lawn, and its light weight makes it easier to operate for smaller individuals. It has both a T-handle and a padded handle to make mowing more comfortable.
Plus, this compact, low-maintenance reel mower has a fold-down handle for storage and is light enough to hang in the garage if preferred. The cutting height can be adjusted from 0.5 to 2.75 inches.
Since there are only four 14-inch blades cutting against the bedknife, this mower provides the least resistance out of all the models on the list, making it a good one if you’re a beginner or worried about manual mowers being too difficult to push.
Overall, this four-blade reel mower is sturdy and simple to operate, though it might need a second pass to finish cleaning up tougher patches due to having fewer blades.
You could use it to maintain the paths in your vegetable garden or other low-traffic grassy areas effectively with this manual mower.
Best High-Quality Reel Mower: Fiskars StaySharp Max Reel Mower, 18 Inch
This Fiskars reel mower might be pricey, but you certainly get high quality in return for the price. This model has two small front rollers for better balance and stability, and its high-quality StaySharp blades require less frequent sharpening.
In addition to that, it has a design called InertiaDrive that enables the mower to cut through grass that is denser.
Even though the Fiskars Stay Sharp Max mower costs roughly twice as much as the others on the list, it easily outperforms them in every way. The construction, which weighs a hefty 52 pounds, has a heavy-duty feel but operates efficiently.
Even on the roughest terrain, the machine can be maneuvered with relative ease thanks to the ergonomically designed handle.
The wheels on this reel mower are offset in a way that prevents them from flattening the grass before mowing, allowing you to get closer to the edge of your lawn (only an inch away) than you would with most other reel mowers (typically 3.5 inches).
The lever’s height can be altered quickly and easily with one hand and the cutting height can be adjusted anywhere from one to four inches, and the chute can be moved in either direction, allowing the clippings to fall either in front of or behind the mower as desired.
This Fiskars mower has a cutting width of 18 inches, which makes it an excellent choice for maintaining lawns in both smaller and larger sizes. Plus, you can buy a grass catcher on its own if you want to.
If you’re looking for unbeatable quality, you can’t go wrong with this reel mower.
Best Reel Mower for Tall Grass: American Lawn Mower Company 16-inch Reel Mower
Unlike most reel lawn mowers, this 16-inch push reel lawn mower from American Lawn Mower Company has blades and a bed knife made of tempered steel, as well as an unbreakable steel side plate.
This built quality is incredible and definitely worth checking out. The blades slice through grass blades up to 4 inches tall, just like a pair of scissors would without ripping them like rotary mowers would.
One of the things that we love the most about this particular mower is how easy it is to use! If you’re concerned that a manual reel mower will be a lot of physical work, then consider trying this one by American Lawn Mower Company; it makes mowing a breeze and is easy to move through tall grass even with one hand.
How To Use a Manual Push Mower
Back when your grandpa was using a reel mower, the common grass-cutting technique was to saw–pass the mower back and forth in a sawing-like motion. That’s because the blades weren’t all that sharp. Today that’s unnecessary. Just walk at a normal pace and a single pass (or sometimes two) will suffice.
Cut to Shortest Recommend Length
Always cut to the shortest recommended height. That makes it an easier job for both you, the pusher, as well as for the reel push mower.
You’ll want to keep your grass at a proper mowing height (no more than three to four inches) and try to mow no more than one-third of the grass blade at a time. This helps feed the soil and ensures that your lawn will have deeper roots, which makes the grass healthier and discourages weeds.
That is, it’s better to mow a little bit and frequently instead of waiting for the grass to be too high. Usually once a week will do the trick.
Avoid long gaps and tall grass between mowings. Tall grass means too much work and it will be harder on you and the mower
Overlap Your Mowing Lines
Overlapping wheels while bicycle racing causes accidents. In the case of your lawn, overlapping the mowing pattern is a good thing. It makes it easier to mow and helps catch any errant grass blades that the push mower missed the first time around. (One good hint: if you get sloppy and wait until your grass is too tall to cut, try increasing the amount of overlap between passes.)
Variety adds spice to life and to mowing, so experiment. Try mowing in different patterns and seeing what makes your lawn look best. Heck, if you’ve really got a lot of time on your hands, you could work on becoming the next Picasso of the playing field.
Change Method Depending on Season
To every season, there is a method of cutting. You may find that you need to change your mowing technique as conditions change.
For example, grass grows fast in the spring and is brimming with moisture. You may need to set your push mower at a higher cutting height and mow more frequently than in the fall when the growing season is coming to an end.
Similarly, during the peak of summer and summer heat grass has less moisture and is thinner. You may need to reduce the mowing height to get your lawn to look its best.
Weed Control Tips
If dandelions or other “willowy” weeds take up residence, you’ll find that mowing isn’t the best solution.
This is because they are so tall that when the mower pushes over them, they do not spring back up to be cut by the blade. You’ll be pushing and the mower will be cutting, but the weeds will escape.
Instead of futile mowing, either start attacking weeds with the mower while they are still short enough to be easily cut or explore other forms of weed control.
How to Maintain Push Reel Mowers:
- Wipe your mower off occasionally. The cleaner you keep it the longer it lasts.
- Keep the cutter bar properly adjusted, but don’t over tighten. You may find that over time and with the vibrations associated with mowing, it loosens. (See your owner’s manual for details.)
- Regularly lube the lawn mower’s bearings and cutting edges. WD-40 works or use a similar product.
- Consider purchasing and using a sharpening kit on your mower’s blade. Check and see what your mower’s manufacturer recommends.
Other Lawn Guides from Planet Natural:
Eric Vinje founded Planet Natural with his father Wayne in 1991, originally running it as a grasshopper bait mail-order business out of a garage.
Eric is now retired, but is still a renowned gardener known for his expertise in composting, organic gardening and pest control, utilizing pesticide-free options, such as beneficial insects.
Eric believes when you do something good for the environment, the effects will benefit generations to come.